Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul

Chicago Gutters

"Conscience is the inner voice which warns us someone may be looking."

— H.L. Mencken

Chicago's southwest side was a filmy, icy gray — the grayness of a cesspool that morning. Slush of a recent snowfall-turned-sloppy had been shoved by plowmen onto the curbs and over the sidewalks, against the low brick storefronts and over the stoops of the three-flats along California Avenue. Milk and tinkers' wagons, streetcars and a few automobiles dared to skate the lanes of frozen cobble and hardened mud. They found themselves on a hazardous journey. A freezing skinned the pavements early morning, giving the unclean grayness a petrified look, glistening but definitely not crystalline. Ugly, rather. December 6, 1908, had dawned, a physical nightmare. And the nightmare had a spokesperson, born that morning. Its squeals battered the darkness of the Gillis flat at 944 North California.

The Gillis flat (Bob Fischer)
The Gillis flat (Bob Fischer)

Lester Joseph Gillis came into this world a chronic child who, it was said, never lost the bleating ill-temper of a spoiled brat. He bore the pout of a devil-child and the cruelty of one of Milton's Inferno torturers. A social commentator would later describe Lester Gillis as "something out of a bad dream". He was to emerge from the kick 'em-hard Chicago Stockyards district as Baby Face Nelson, one of the toughest, and definitely the most heartless, of the Depression-era gangsters. Cold and brutal, he enjoyed killing. Even his criminal peers were wary of his path. 

"Where outlaws such as Pretty Boy Floyd and the Barkers would kill to protect themselves when cornered, Nelson went out of his way to murder — he loved it," apprises Jay Robert Nash in Bloodletters and Badmen. "His angelic, pear-smooth face never betrayed his instant ability to kill."

Richard Lindberg, author of Return to the Scene of the Crime, adds, "Standing only five feet four inches, Gillis compensated for his physical limitations with a murderous temper and a willingness to employ a switchblade or a gun without hesitation or remorse for the intended victim."

Little Lester was born to poor Highland Scot immigrant parents Josef and Mary Gillis, from Margaree, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, who could not comprehend nor adapt to American ways of life; they were pathetically naïve in the realities of the urban pavement. The neighborhood brooded in the lower depths of Chicago's sanitation canal district, tilting between a milieux of freight yards, water towers, viaducts and a series of constantly flooding city sloughs, fed by factories that fenced in the entire area. Wherever one walked he walked in the shadows of their smokestacks.

Neighbors were generally old-country; the elders didn't understand the walk nor talk of urbanity, but their kids picked it up as their major language. In that era of ethnic challenge, nationalities huddled with their own. South of the Gillis' flat lay the bustle of Maxwell Street, where Jewish tinkers pawned their trade; circling it was the Bohemian artsy culture of the University of Chicago sophisticates who, though speaking the slang of the Jazz generation, spoke old-world German and Lithuanian at home amongst their forefathers. Heading south, Irish and Polish customs prevailed south of Archer Avenue.

The elder Gillis labored twelve-hour days, six days a week at the Union Stockyards as a packer in one of the many ice houses along Canal Street; here nationalities didn't matter, for everybody had dirty work to do for little pay. It was Upton Sinclair's Jungle, whose pungent smells of dead cattle and roasting carcass pickled the noses of the surrounding communities.

Mary Gillis was a woman of great Christian faith, but of little understanding of anxious boys. She was a bright woman in many respects — trying to help feed the family, she tutored French to school children — but while her husband toiled late, she allowed her boys the freedom to wander outdoors unchecked. Lester soon developed as tough — and inflexible — as the concrete below his ragged trouser cuffs.

But, it wasn't all social obligation gone haywire that drove Lester down. His brothers and sisters, just as acutely realistic to their surroundings, adapted to their poor station in life with acceptance. They avoided the neighborhood miscreants, attended school without question, followed their parents to Mass on Sundays and generally learned the meaning of the American idiom, "Keep your nose clean".

But, in his earliest years, Lester drifted lost among the thousands of other urchins in the canal area, nondescript as the stagnant sloughs, even when bubbling. He seemed to prefer to wander. As his classmates at St. Bridget's grew, and his buddies around him on California Avenue grew, Lester didn't. At 5 feet, four inches, his bones cried No more!, and Lester the runt was easy prey for the meaty bullies. More so, his blue-eyed, angelic face prompted teenage thugs to add a scar here and there with blackjacks and baseball bats ant bricks. Lester, in his most impressionable years, probably tasted hell.

One whack too many to the head perhaps, and the boy came back fighting. Six to eight inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than the gang members who tramped the neighborhood, Lester's growing vindictiveness affronted his lack of girth. Peewee became a bantam rooster and a bantamweight who figured that if God denied him the height he'd take what the devil had to offer. And that was a pair of fists that learned how to never bruise. He retaliated deep black and ugly purple. And red. He bloodied the noses of anyone who taunted, the latter stunned when that dwarfish factor with the choir boy's face sprung at them with the ferocity of a cornered, wounded panther.

Chicago in the early 1920's (Keystone View Company)
Chicago in the early 1920's
(Keystone View Company)

Lester Gillis quickly earned a reputation as someone to avoid at all costs. He'd smack you for the hell of it and rarely give a reason. Most likely Napoleonic complex. With a pack of lumbering rag-pickers that used to molest him but now respected him — a better word might be feared — he swaggered about his own neighborhood and among others, simply looking for trouble — a window to smash, a drunk to roll, a store to shoplift, a small market to rob, a car to steal, a sissy to mangle. These crimes were an outlet for a child who spent too many years looking for an outlet. As the years passed, they escalated. The local police station on Deering Street knew his name and often patrolled the alleys near his home hoping to catch sandy-haired, dirty-faced young Lester and his dodgers in the act of some transgression.

Author Michael Wallis, whose book Pretty Boy highlighted the career of "Pretty Boy" Floyd and his 1920s/1930s contemporaries of crime such as Baby Face Nelson, says of Lester Gillis, "(He) grew up scared but mean around the stockyard district...In order to survive and compensate for his physical limitations, Gillis became adept with a switchblade and a reputation as (someone) who was not afraid to inflict pain."

Lester's parents, by the time they realized what their boy had been up to — that is, that they had been inadvertently feeding and lodging a junior Atilla — tried desperately to make him see the futility in his direction. Their efforts were wholly supported by the parish priests and the nuns at his school, but their gentle persuasions failed. More drastic parental yelling, then threats, failed. Discipline bounced off Lester's attitude like a gossamer leaf off a stump. He felt nothing. But, when his father changed tactics ("There's no better tutor than a barber's strap," so taught an old expression), Lester knew enough that whelps on his behind hurt — he had been given plenty of kicks there from the boys in town before he wised up — and he ran away.

But, absence doth grow fonder a heart, for when the police brought the fleeing boy home after a few days it was to open-armed Gillis parents who compromised with fate and determined they would rather have Attila than his empty chair at the dinner table. The elders remained mute and henceforth turned an eye when sonny boy quit school and, in time, quit his family altogether. He'd come home to sleep; if even that. Yes, there was an empty chair at the dinner table after all.

Lester was too busy to eat, haranguing with the Halsted Street Boys, local Machiavellians named after the central thoroughfare of their turf. Along its curbs they strutted, daring anyone to cross their path. Reads the FBI's history file on him, "By the age of 14, he was an accomplished car thief...In 1922, (he) was convicted of auto theft and was convicted to a boys' home."

Released nearly 24 months later, Lester obviously had not learned life's lesson. He returned to his beloved streets immediately, switchblade back in pocket ready for a brawl, crowbar back under his coat ready for a break-in. Five months later, police discovered the pillager half-through a department store window well after closing hours. They needed to tousle him a bit — he didn't accompany their lawful grasp too willingly — but at last they overcame him and, sanctioned by a judge who didn't like the manner in which Lester told him where to go, tossed the delinquent over the threshold of the architecturally spooky Chicago Boys Home.

By the time he concluded his second incarceration at the end of 1926, he returned to a new world and one that, for would-be Attila's, brought opportunities. It was a world that was blithely cognizant of and endearing to the hoodlum with savvy and muscle yearning for a quick buckaroo. The Eighteenth Amendment (the Volstead Act) of the Constitution had been put into effect, outlawing the sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol for, to and by the American public, but citizens were not about to give up their hazy caramel-tinted treat.

One of the earliest photos of Lester Gillis (Jay Robert Nash)
One of the earliest
photos of Lester
Gillis (Jay Robert
Nash)

Pushed by temperance leagues and "dry" extremists, the Volstead Act — popularly called Prohibition — urged the underworld to pick up the provisions that the government decided to ignore. By manufacturing its own beer and whiskey, and by importing it from Canada and other ports, the criminal element gained a strong foothold in every state of the Union by simply supplying what the American public wanted. In metropolitan arenas where the demand for spirits ran especially high, the bootlegger — the gangster who supplied "King Booze" — had become a necessary commodity to national partying. In Chicago, where hard-working, hard-drinking Midwestern blue-collarism would have otherwise gone thirsty, the slack was joyously defeated by crime baron Alphonse Capone.

Al Capone (Chicago Historical Society)
Al Capone
(Chicago Historical
Society)

Capone, a New York thug who had gunned his way up through the underworld ranks, had come west about 1919 to manage the Chicago Underworld. Because he was able to keep a city wet — thanks to grafting police chiefs and vote-nervous politicians — Capone's organization virtually owned the city. As the money rolled in, the mob branched out to other enterprises, such as labor racketeering. By moving in on some of the more prosperous, larger unions, such as the Theatre Projectionists' Union, the Florists Union, or the Dairyman's Union, Capone not only grasped their control to grow rich from these industries, he was able to manipulate the way a majority of the city's geographic work force voted. That is, Capone ensured that those who toiled, shirtsleeves rolled up, kept the crooked politicos in office so that his, Capone's, own racket might flourish unmolested by pouting reformists.

Sometimes, however, unions resisted. In these cases, brutal force ensured their compliance. Capone relied on men of quick fist and unpleasant countenance to misshape a nose or break an arm of a non-compliant union spokesperson. He directed top triggerman, Jack McGurn, to locate and manage an army of "convincers". Word spread through underworld channels that big money was being offered to enforcers. Lester, in need of quick cash and hoping to cut his way into the moneyed underworld, answered the call. Besides, it was the very thing he loved to do: to prove that tough guys come in all sizes — even at 5-feet, four-inches tall.

To the mob, Lester at first seemed an excellent choice as enforcer. Since his latest parole, he had reunited with some of his old Halsted Street crones to develop a protection racket. "Selling protection," to coin the phrase of the day, meant barging into one's business, telling the owners that they must buy insurance against fire, theft, ruination and even death lest all these calamities and more befall their business. Of course, what the protection sellers were really selling — and their targets understood this notwithstanding — was protection from the sellers' own wrath. It was a case of do-or-die.

The boys' customers were chiefly pawn shop owners, bookie agents and brothel madams. Unwilling clients found their shops torched, their employees attacked and even members of their families harmed. It took merely to make an example of a few and the rest signed on the dotted line. Just for the hell of it, Lester Gillis would provide a cut lip after the signing, adding, "Taste the blood? There's a hell of a lot more to taste if you back out." Lester was becoming a big man. When McGurn's forces enlisted him, Lester was thrilled. He abandoned his protection scheme and, quite honored at the given opportunity, went to work for "Big Al" Capone's mob.

"His specialty was labor relations," reports Jay Robert Nash in Bloodletters and Badmen. "He could always be counted on to line up labor unions to kick back part of their union dues to gangsters. Sometimes he got too ambitious and his usually too severe beating of a balking labor leader turned into murder."

Lester had tasted blood and liked it. Pocket knife, .32 calibre revolver, Thompson machine gun, even baseball bat — these were the tools of his trade. And while such instruments terrorized and convinced the procrastinators to cough up, the Capone people were getting nervous because too many procrastinators than were required were winding up mincemeat. Capone preferred peaceful arrangements whenever possible, not for conscience but practicality. Many of the union persona he needed to come to his side were intimates of politicians or politicians themselves; some were even string members of the local Mafiosi, an organization that backed Capone's play in Chicago even though "Big Al" was not an official member. (He wasn't one-hundred percent Sicilian, a prerequisite for fraternity.). There then existed a fine line between ally and enemy. Of all the rank and file Capone wished to keep as happy backers were the representatives of national labor with Mafia value.

Mob enforcer Jack McGurn (Jay Robert Nash)
Mob enforcer Jack
McGurn
(Jay Robert Nash)

When a few words of advice didn't calm his homicidal temper, and when the labor cumpari started complaining they were losing too many good hands, Jack McGurn thought it best that they part ways. Lester was unemployed and angry, but smart enough to know you don't leave Capone's shop cussing the cumpari. Lester didn't realize it at the time, but by letting him go McGurn probably saved his life.

By now, feeling more comfortable than ever with a gun in his paw, Lester turned to armed robbery. No more creeping under windowsills for him and getting nabbed with his ass in the air. Walk in, draw the gat, hands up everyone, grab the cash, and disappear. Easy!

Money was a necessity more than ever. He had found himself a girlfriend, shapely little 18-year-old Helen Wawzynak, and was seriously considering marriage. (He was tiring of the overdone cluckers at the hen houses.) Over the next couple of months, the former Capone heavyweight stole himself an auto and hit several stores, mostly jewelry shops, in the Chicago vicinity. His take was (what he considered) "small potatoes," the largest some $2,000, but until he found something else that netted more profit, this would have to do. He missed the wads of greenback he earned as a skull-breaker for the mob, but, hell, at least he didn't have to hand over a percentage to grease ball dagos.

A soup kitchen to feed the hungry and homeless during the depression. (UPI/Corbis)
A soup kitchen to feed
the hungry and homeless dur-
ing the depression. (UPI/Corbis)

Just before Christmas, 1930, he struck it big. A robbery of a prosperous gem dealer in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, gained him $5,000 — top money for a boy still living in the canal area of Chicago's southwest side at the advent of a national depression. Wall Street had taken a dive and, in its descent, brought the country down with it. Stock watchers were predicting a long and lean time ahead for American bacon-bringers. But, Lester chuckled.

"What depression?" he laughed, flipping an engagement ring into her hand one evening . Helen, whom he had spotted working behind the hardware counter at a downtown Woolworth's, was eager to quit the unglamorous position and take off with the exciting bad boy with the sideways grin. She found him "different," she later reported, and enjoyed being nicknamed his "Million Dollar Baby From the Five and Ten Cent Store" (after the popular song of the day).

Things were going well for Lester

Until he decided to stick up another jeweler's in January, 1931, and was arrested on the spot.

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